As the weather grew cooler, the inn grew busier, and I had less and less time to come up with a plan. The city was preparing for its annual autumn festival, when ships came from all over the world on a last trip before the winter storms, and the streets would throng with people buying and selling. The inn was booked solid and everyone's workload doubled. My previous existence became more and more dreamlike, until I started to wonder if I'd actually spent my whole life scrubbing linens and scorching biscuits, and just imagined a world of washing machines and electric ovens.
"Of course it's not just the festivities causing all the hubbub," one of the seafood sellers confided one morning when I went to restock the inn's never-ending store of fish. "One of the princes is said to be coming to the festival. The youngest. It's got the ladies all in an uproar." He winked at me. I ignored him. But he was far from the only one with this news. Everywhere I went that day I heard it repeated.
"He's a good lad, though he's never going to inherit anything," said Magg, the new cook. "He mingles with the common folk, and they say he's quite handsome. My cousin's husband saw him once."
Prince sightings began to crop up in the most unlikely spots, and Ket made a running joke of it around the inn. Every new guest was really the prince in disguise, and an excuse to work even harder. I was annoyed by yet another distraction from the rose hunt, but I played along with it. Inmar seemed disgusted by the entire thing.
"Why would anyone want to rule over this forsaken heap of rocks?" he said, when I made the mistake of mentioning the news. "Everything smells like fish. I suppose you can't blame these people for being excited. But you should have higher standards." He stalked off before I could think of a snappy comeback. I kicked a table leg, vowing to be wittier next time.
Two days before the start of the festivities, I was gathering herbs in the vegetable garden and trying to decide if I could sneak off without being missed when Magg rushed out, wiping her floury hands on her apron. "You'll never guess who's coming to stay," she gasped. "I don't believe it myself. Ket's in a state, and wants you inside at once. We just found out"
I stared at her in confusion. "Who's coming to stay, Magg?"
"The prince! He'll be here by this evening. Can you believe it?" She ran back into the kitchen before I could respond, leaving me clutching a heap of wilted herbs. I followed her at a run, thoughts of sneaking off forgotten. After listening to Ket crack jokes about this very subject, it seemed impossible.
Inside was pandemonium. Everyone was doing several things at once, and bumping into everyone else in the process. Master Malfin stood in the doorway looking helplessly on. "Ah, Arianne," he called. "Go and make sure the guest suite is prepared. Ket had to see about the front room. Take whatever you need." The poor man looked like he was about to pass out.
I trekked up the steep staircase to the third floor suite, the one reserved for important guests. The air was stale and musty, and I opened all the windows, trying to bring in a little fresh air. The rooms still weren't fancy, but if the prince wanted fancy, he should have picked a different inn. Hopefully, he'd at least stay long enough for me to catch a glimpse of him. Princes were hard to come by in the real world. I hurried back downstairs as soon as possible, arms piled high with old bed sheets. I wanted the details from Ket.
I made it safely down the first flight of steps, but wasn't watching where I was going. Halfway down the second flight I crashed headlong into someone coming up. I yelped, he grunted, and we both pitched backward down the stairs. We hit bottom with a thump, raising a small cloud of dust. I coughed and gathered up the sheets so I could see who I'd run into. If it was Inmar, I had a feeling I was about to be demoted back down to disgusting cockroach.
The man sat up. It was not Inmar. A guest? There were so many of them right now I'd stopped keeping track. He ran a hand through curly brown hair and turned to look at me. I felt my face turn red. On the bright side, he was still breathing. On the not-so-bright side, I'd nearly smothered him with dirty bed sheets. "I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't look where I was going. And I didn't see you. I'm really sorry. Are you all right?"
He laughed and pulled himself upright. "It's all right," he said, "I'm fine." But he was doubled over and still rubbing his head, and it seemed possible he was lying. I felt awful. I liked to think I wasn't the sort of person who shoves other people down stairs.
"Why don't you come with me," I said, "and I'll get you something to drink. Are you staying at the inn?" The rest of the staff could see to the impending royal visit. I owed this much to my victim. He was cute, in a puppy-ish sort of way, tall and gangly, with laugh lines around his mouth. It would be bliss to talk to someone who wasn't Inmar and didn't hate me. Maybe I could convince him I wasn't actually a crazed laundress.
I led him through the door to the kitchen. It was empty, and I dove for the tea pot before Magg returned and wanted to know what I was doing. I poured a mug and escorted him out into the kitchen garden. It was chilly, but better than the chaos inside.
He sat on a rock and gratefully took the tea.
"I'm really sorry," I began again, but he waved for me to stop.
"I assure you, I'm fine. I've had much worse happen to me than being knocked down a flight of steps."
"They were clean steps," I said. "I scrubbed them two days ago. But I can't say the same for the sheets."
"The steps felt very clean," he said. "I noticed as I was sliding down. I thought, 'these steps have recently been scrubbed.'"
I laughed. He was cute and funny. "You said you were staying here. I'm sorry, but I don't remember your name."
He smiled. "I suppose I should say I will be staying here. I'm in the city for the festival. You can call me Orren."
"I'm Arianne," I told him. "Pleased to meet you." His arrival today of all days seemed odd, and I wondered if he was part of the prince's retinue, but couldn't figure out a polite way to ask. If he was, I'd find out soon enough.
"Have you worked here long?" he said.
I shrugged. "A couple of months. I'm only here for a while. Just passing through."
"Your accent sounds foreign. You must be from another region."
I nodded, not wanting to elaborate. My concept of the islands' geography was hazy. I knew I was in the far north of a northern climate, but that was it. I hadn't known much during my time as a fisherman's daughter. Orren didn't push me for details. "Are you enjoying your time here?" he asked.
I shrugged again and wondered what his reaction would be if I told him the truth. "I'm enjoying it a lot," I said instead. "The city is very pleasant. I spend time exploring it when I'm not working. Soon, I might even pass as a local."
He took the last swallow of his tea. "Just wait," he said. "We're about to enter the cold season, and it won't be so pleasant then. Mud and damp and wind at first, then sleet and snow just to mix things up. This whole city will be snowbound for five or six months. I always make it a point to leave before then."
Just then, a man came around the side of the stables and spotted us. "Orren," he called, "they're ready for us."
Orren turned back to me with his empty cup and sketched a bow. "It was a pleasure bumping into you, Arianne," he said, his face completely straight. I watched him leave, pondering many things. Would it really be so bad, I wondered, to stay here forever, fish smells and bad weather notwithstanding? At least the company was pleasant. When I went into the kitchen to return the cup, Malfin was back, wiping his balding brow and overseeing the dinner menu. He came over, and I braced for a scolding.
"Arianne," he said, "you finished the rooms?"
"Good," he said. He apparently hadn't heard about the staircase incident, and I relaxed. "The prince has just arrived," he continued. "Ket is showing him up now, and I can't tell you how important this is. If he enjoys his stay, it could mean more business for years."
"Why is he staying here?" I asked, too curious to be tactful.
Malfin hunched his shoulders. "Ket's told you the stories about this place, hasn't she?" I nodded. "The prince is fascinated by the old legends. I suppose staying in a place so steeped in them tickled his fancy. We're certainly not equipped for royalty." He glanced around the kitchen, as if reminding himself of the inn's unsuitability.
I snorted. "If he doesn't like it, he can leave." Malfin paled. "Not that I'll tell him that," I added hastily.
He nodded, his mind already off on another track. "Can you stay and help Magg with supper?" he asked. "I need to find Ket."
I spent the rest of the evening gossiping with Magg and chopping vegetables. I knew I ought to slip off to do some rose hunting, but I wasn't making any headway, and a prince was more exciting, especially since Inmar was so out of sorts about it. I tried several times to catch a glimpse of the royal visitor, but he had retired to his rooms until the meal. Magg had seen him when he arrived, though, and reported he was very good-looking. "Of course," she added, "he's a prince. He could be a hunchbacked snaggletooth and I'd still think he was handsome."
"He's not a very important prince, though, is he?" I said. I knew very little about Sutheria's royal family but had picked up that much.
Magg shrugged. "No, but that still leaves him more important than me. He's the fourth son, I think, and all his older brothers are perfectly fit and healthy and not likely to drop dead anytime soon. But he lives in a castle, girl. What more could you ask for?"
I said nothing, thinking of my own recent experience with castles. "What's his name," I asked instead.
"Orren," she said. "Prince Orren."
I nearly sliced my thumb off. "What?! That's his name? The prince's name? Orren? Are you sure?"
Magg gave me an odd look. "Watch those parsnips. Yes, I'm sure. What's the matter?"
I'd just knocked a prince down a flight of stairs. He might be an unimportant prince, but as Magg had pointed out, he was still a prince. Good grief. What was the matter with me? If Malfin ever found out, he would kill me. I felt my cheeks burn. Magg was still staring at me curiously, but I couldn't bear to tell her what had happened. "I'm . . . just surprised," I said lamely. "It seems like a common name." Magg raised her eyebrows, but didn't ask any more questions.
I stayed in the kitchen as long as I could, absolutely mortified and determined to keep out of sight. But Ket came looking for me. "You didn't tell me you had already met the prince," she said as she entered the room. She looked puzzled.
"It was very informal," I hedged. "I didn't realize who he was at first."
"Well, he wants to speak with you," said Ket, "so you'd better get out there straightaway."
"What does he want?"
"Go and find out," she told me.
I trudged into the common room, feeling like a dozen kinds of an idiot. If the prince told anyone how we'd met, I'd never hear the end of it. Orren spotted me, and my heart sank as he beckoned. "Arianne," he said, "won't you have a seat?" I looked helplessly around the room, only to spot Malfin in the doorway, nodding frantically.
Not wanting to annoy him, I sat. The rest of the men at the table stared, but none of them seemed unfriendly. Orren offered me wine and food, which I graciously refused, just as if I had proper manners and hadn't dropped dirty laundry on his head a few hours ago. He finally gave up trying to feed me. "I have a favor to ask of you, Arianne," he said, "provided the innkeeper does not object." I nodded dumbly. Malfin would object to nothing short of murder on the prince's behalf, and could probably be talked into that. "I have business in the city that will occupy me for most of the day tomorrow," the prince continued. "However, my companions are here only to attend the festival and are all strangers to the city. Normally, I would show them around myself, but I can't be in two places at once. Our plan was to hire a local to show them the sights while I complete my business." I nodded again. "Since I have already made your acquaintance, and you've admitted to being familiar with the city, I thought to ask whether we could hire your services."
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Malfin nodding frantically again. "I suppose that would be all right."
He smiled. "Good. Be ready tomorrow morning."
After the prince left the common room I went to tell Ket of the bargain, consoling myself with the fact that any chance to get away from the inn was a chance to hunt for roses. Then I walked back into the room to clear away dishes. I almost didn't notice Inmar, who sat on the hearth staring into the flames. I was under the table trying to reach an empty mug when he spoke. "A prince for a queen? Is he good enough for you, Majesty?"
I was so startled I cracked my head on the table. It was the first time he'd ever spoken to me of his own accord. I straightened up. He hadn't turned around or moved. He was still staring at the fire. The flickering light made his face look strange and unearthly. "I have no idea what you're talking about," I said at last.
Inmar turned to face me. "It isn't the way of the Fae to consort with mortals, princes or not."
I was dumbfounded. "Then why are you talking to me?" I finally asked him.
"I try to avoid it," he said. He got up and walked out of the room.
I left too. I couldn't figure out if I wanted to laugh or cry, but whichever it was I wanted to do it in private.
A/N: Hey there favorite readers! Thanks for continuing to read. I'd love to hear from all 15 of you. ;)
Carol: Aw, thanks! That was quite a few years ago, so I'm tickled you remember. Welcome back! :D